Initially I was disappointed to oh no I'll have to watch ITV now proportions when I turned on BBC1 last week Sunday night to tune into to the gripping thriller 'Undercover' only to find a load of celebs back-slapping each other at the BAFTAs. Then who should pop up but Adrian Lester (male lead of Undercover) who rather than playing his double-life character was handing Lenny Henry the Alan Clarke prize for his outstanding contribution to television.
My hand moved away from the remote.
Lenny Henry has been on my telly since my childhood Saturday mornings rushing down the stairs to watch him as Trevor McDoughnut on Tiswas to his diverse comic characters (Delbert Wilkins being a massive favev) on his many shows over the years to his contribution to Comic Relief to his magnificent performance in the Shakespeare play 'Comedy of Errors'. I have grown up with Lenny; he has been probably the one constant black face on my telly for nearly three decades. And as a kid growing up in 80s Essex, this was immense.
I think we tend to watch TV not only to escape but also to see parts of our life that we experience being represented. We like to empathize and recognize situations characters might find themselves in. We like to see US on our tellies. And that simply was not happening when I was growing up. But Lenny Henry brought characters into our orange and brown living room that made references to the life I was living with my family, to the background I had come from, to the experience I was having as a young Black Briton.
At a recent event I heard a young black woman disparage Lenny Henry about only now choosing to speak out about diversity after he had 'made it' to the top of his career. I couldn't believe this - she was criticizing him for using his voice and his name to highlight the lack of diversity in all aspects of British film and TV! Here is a man who managed to survive the ignoranamus era of 1970s British telly to be a household, mainstream name since the 1980s. (And still puts up with the same old nonsense in this decade #AinsleyorLenny) Can you name another black actor who has consistently, successfully done the same thing over the same length of time?
And now he has moved into the Shakespeare domain, he has had his own radio 4 series on the history black entertainment in the UK and he could have made a choice to keep his career moving without reaching out to lend a hand out to those who come after him.
If someone like Lenny Henry, with his influence, doesn't stand up at these high level forums to raise the issue with statistics and solutions about how to open the right doors for diversity in entertainment then who will?
His speech at the BAFTAs was calm. clear, honest, full of humility but also carried a strong message about the need for our telly to increase the reflection of our true society. And he was still funny.
I love Lenny Henry's work, I feel it has grown with me. And I, for one, was happy to see him win his award because for those of us above a certain age - his success is a reflection of where we have come. A recognition.